May 30, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

They're Coming to America

Immigration reform is on the move: a comprehensive immigration reform bill, S. 744, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 21 by a vote of 13-5, with a full Senate vote expected to take place this summer.  A recent op ed in the New York Times noted that although the "hard-core opponents of reform will continue to throw all they've got" against the immigration bill, "every day of movement in the committee process is a rebuke to the politics of defiant stalemate."

While this forward movement is positive, there are still opponents in the House that could throw a wrench into the process—and many of those congressional opponents are backed by Republican voters who share objections to a comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) measure and the path to citizenship.

A nationwide survey conducted by The Chicago Council last month reveals broad public support for some variation of immigration reform, as do many other recent polls.  But there are also clear partisan differences among the American public, with far more Republicans than Democrats or Independents preferring deportation over a path to citizenship for undocumented workers in the United States.

Majority Does Not Favor Deportation, but Views Differ on Citizenship for Workers

When asked which of four options comes closest to their views about undocumented immigrants who are currently working in the United States, only three in ten (31%) Americans believe undocumented workers should be required to leave their jobs and leave the United States.

Of the rest, one in four (25%) says undocumented ("illegal" in the question wording) workers should be allowed to stay in their jobs and apply for US citizenship. An equal proportion (25%) says they should be allowed to stay in their jobs and eventually apply for US citizenship only if they pay a penalty and wait a number of years—similar to the legislation currently under debate, which requires a long probationary period, a fine, and repayment of back taxes. Another 16 percent say undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in their jobs with work permits, but not be allowed to apply for US citizenship.

Immigration is one of the few key foreign policy issues on which there are stark partisan differences. Republicans are more likely than Democrats or Independents to say that all illegal immigrants should be required to leave their jobs and the United States (48% Republicans, 20% Democrats, 31% Independents). They are less likely than other partisans to support allowing undocumented workers to stay in their jobs and to apply for US citizenship without conditions (12% Republicans, 36% Democrats, 25% Independents) (Figure 1).

At the same time, there also have been some key shifts in Chicago Council results that signal the overall public’s readiness for immigration reform. Polling trends show that Americans’ concern over undocumented immigrants in the United States has fallen dramatically over the past 18 years. Additionally, more Americans now believe that the United States, rather than Mexico, should take the lead in dealing with illegal immigration.

More Americans Now Think the US, Not Mexico, Should Be Responsible for Illegal Flows

The nationwide 2012 Chicago Council Survey showed that for the first time in Chicago Council Survey history, only a minority (40%) of Americans considered immigration a critical threat to the US. Public perceptions of immigration as a critical threat declined a staggering 32 points over the course of eighteen years (Figure 2).

Perception of Critical Threat of Immigrants and Refugees[/caption] In addition, more Americans now than in 2004 want to place the onus on the United States to deal with undocumented immigration flows. Six in ten Americans across partisan divides (57% overall) say that the United States should be more responsible for dealing with illegal Mexican immigrants entering the country. This is up twelve percentage points from 2004, when a slight majority thought that Mexico should be more responsible for dealing with unauthorized immigration (50%, compared to 40% now) (Figure 3).  

US/Mexico Responsibility by Issue[/caption] Opinion is less decisive on which country should bear responsibility for illegal immigration from countries other than Mexico entering the United States through Mexico (the question did not specify particular countries). A slight majority believes this burden should lie with the United States, though nearly as many think Mexico should be accountable (52% US, 45% Mexico). When asked the same question in 2004, opinion was more evenly divided (48% Mexico, 46% US).

American Impressions of Undocumented Immigrant Flows Are Exaggerated

When asked their impressions over the past year, half (50%) of the public says that illegal immigration has increased over the past year, including 64 percent of Republicans and half of other partisan groups. These impressions overstate actual inflows of undocumented immigration. Recent reports have highlighted that inflows of unauthorized immigration nationwide have flattened to net-zero in the past few years, meaning that more Mexican immigrants are leaving the United States for Mexico than the other way around.

Those who perceive that illegal immigration flows have either declined or stabilized over the past year have a much more positive image of Mexican immigrants living in the United States as well as immigration reform—underscoring the potential power of accurate information.

Immigration reform gained momentum in the United States after the 2012 presidential election, when the Hispanic vote helped to swing the election conclusively toward President Obama, and only 27 percent of Hispanics voted for Romney.  This sounded a wake up call for the Republican party, and many reform advocates are hopeful that GOP self-interest will sway its leadership to embrace change to remain competitive at the national level.  We'll see what the summer vote brings.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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